ISLAMABAD: Troublesome times for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) show no signs of abating anytime soon. The party may have survived eight long and hard years of Pervez Musharraf’s military rule but the recent turn of events at it helms poses, as what many believe, an ‘existential’ threat to it.
Not very long ago, serious differences cropped up between the ruling party’s central leadership and its powerful Punjab chapter. And in a short span of time, the fault-lines have become apparent, as the cracks widen.
Informal discussions with PML-N circles suggest that the party has been divided between two groups – one led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the other by Sharif’s younger brother and incumbent Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
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Party insiders say the differences between the two are too serious and hard to reconcile. If true, it will be a nightmarish scenario for the former premier.
Since Nawaz’s departure from the Prime Minister House, following the Supreme Court verdict in the Panamagate case on July 28, the party has reconciled, to a great deal, to the possibility of leadership role assigned to Shehbaz.
Some even went on to talk about the changing the nomenclature of the party from Nawaz League to Shehbaz League – the way Junejo League transformed into the Nawaz League and the Nawaz League once into the Q-League.
“Shehbaz has played it smartly. In his nine years of chief ministership, he created his own following in the party. On the other hand, Nawaz kept party members and general public at bay – and remained surrounded by a handful of favourites,” a PML-N National Assembly member (MNA) said.
“Shehbaz accommodated the powerful lobbies in provincial government and has acquired the role of a father-figure in the Punjab chapter – the bastion of our political strength,” added the lawmaker. “So, in case of any eventuality, Shehbaz has appeared as the obvious choice.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the MNA told The Express Tribune that there was a feeling among the PML-N ranks that Shehbaz had not been rewarded for his sacrifices for the party.
The party loyalists recall that during Musharraf era, it was the unflinching loyalty of Shehbaz that helped the party sail through its tough times. Many times, Musharraf is said to have tried to win Shehbaz over his side and put him in a face-off with his elder brother but in vain.
Kanwar Dilshad, a constitutional expert who has previously served as secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), said the PML-N has survived external threats, but this time around the threat is from within.
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“The PML-N stood the test of time and survived an adversary as powerful as General (retd) Musharraf mainly because Nawaz had a loyal aide and supportive brother in the form of Shehbaz by his side. The N-League is again faced with existential challenges. But this time around, the threat comes from within, and there is no Shehbaz to count on,” he analysed.
Political analyst Dr Hassan Askari Rizvi believes that at this stage the possibility of the Nawaz League becoming Shehbaz League is low. “There is disquiet, confusion and concern in the PML-N but not to the extent that they will dump Nawaz and opt for Shehbaz at this stage,” he said.
“If Nawaz is convicted by the accountability court and he backs Shehbaz as his successor then transition would be easy, otherwise, there will be confusion and we don’t know how far will Shehbaz be able to lead the party in defiance of Nawaz Sharif,” he opined.
Rizvi said Shehbaz would be more than willing to become prime minister and PML-N chief but not without Nawaz’s support – not for now, at the least. “At this stage, things have not reached the point where Shehbaz can act in defiance, especially till Nawaz is convicted,” he added.
While many argue that ‘hidden hands’ – an obvious allusion to the establishment – may be active to dent the PML-N by creating internal division, relevant circles believe if anybody is to blame for this situation, it is none other than Nawaz himself.
“When you sideline your time-tested aides like Shehbaz, Nisar [Ali Khan] and Mehtab [Abbasi] and rely on newly-born politicians like Maryam Nawaz, you are bound to face the music,” said a senior PML-N leader.
The differences between Nawaz and Shehbaz took a serious turn when the former prime minister repeatedly ignored his younger brother’s advices and went on a collision course with state institutions even before being disqualified in the Panamagate case.
After Nawaz’s disqualification, Shehbaz, who had the support of the party’s powerful circles, was the obvious choice for premiership and party leadership, but Nawaz is stated to have heeded the advice of his daughter Maryam and wife Kulsoom Nawaz against elevating Shehbaz.
As if it was not enough, Shehbaz’s son Hamza was also sidelined from the party affairs and replaced with Maryam to run Kulsoom’s election campaign for NA-120 by-poll which added fuel to the fire.
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The Punjab chief minister and his son have made their differences with Nawaz public but in implied vibes. From Shehbaz suggesting his brother not to pay heed to his ‘new advisers’ and Hamza’s statement that ‘his family’ was not facing any corruption case imply that all is not well in the family.
“This will not change and things can get worse until and unless Nawaz gives up his egoistic approach and listens to his old loyalists instead of relying on political paratroopers,” Dilshad said.
PML-N Chairman Raja Zafarul Haq termed the reports of any rift in the party a wishful thinking of rivals. “Such attempts have been made in the past countless times and failed. If we can survive Musharraf’s dictatorship, trust me we can survive anything… come what may!”
He added, “And there’s no comparison between present and past now that our party is in power and it will be in power again in 2018. Everybody in the PML-N, including Shehbaz Sharif, accept Nawaz Sharif as their leader. This leaves no room for speculations. Every political party has internal issues that are dealt with at appropriate party forums.”